City Desk

Today in D.C. History: Post Publisher Commits Suicide

On Aug. 3, 1963, former Washington Post publisher Philip Graham, having struggled with severe bouts of depression for at least five years, went into the bathroom of his family farm near Marshall, Va., and committed suicide with a 28-gauge shotgun.

Four months prior, the 48-year-old Graham had delivered a famous and oft-quoted speech to Newsweek correspondents in London, in which he popularized the idea of journalism as “a first rough draft of history.” (Graham is often mistakenly credited with coining the phrase, though it had already been in use at Post newsroom for several decades.)

The year leading up to Graham’s death was a turbulent one for him and his family. In 1962, he began an affair with Australian journalist Robin Webb, for whom he would later threaten to divorce his wife Katharine Meyer Graham. With Webb, he traveled to a publishing convention in Phoenix and caused a stir when, taking the microphone in a manic state, he started talking about the alleged affairs of John F. Kennedy, with whom he had been closely associated for some time.

Post vice president James Truitt arranged with Kennedy to send Air Force 2 to retrieve Graham, who checked in for the first of two brief stays at Chestnut Lodge, then a leading psychiatric hospital in Rockville, Md., that has since burned down. There he was diagnosed with manic depression, a condition today known as bipolar disorder. On Aug. 3, having apparently made noticeable improvements, he convinced doctors to let him take a retreat to the Virginia farmhouse. He committed suicide that day.

Truitt, an intimate of the Grahams whom Ben Bradlee would later force to resign, committed suicide himself in 1981, still despondent over his treatment at the newspaper after Philip’s death.

Katharine Graham revealed in her 1997 autobiography Personal History (which her biographer Deborah Davis reviewed for Washington City Paper) that she felt her husband received inadequate treatment at Chestnut Lodge, going so far as to say that his condition required electroshock therapy. For her part, Katharine would go on to helm the Post, becoming its de facto publisher during the famed Watergate era and, in 1979, becoming the first woman to hold the title officially.

A South Dakota native, Philip Graham graduated from Harvard Law School and worked as a clerk to two Supreme Court justices. In 1940, he married Katharine, daughter of millionaire Post owner Eugene Meyer, who made Graham publisher in 1946. Two years later, the Grahams took control of the Post Company stock.

During his time in D.C., Graham rubbed shoulders with a group of like-minded politicos known as the Georgetown Set, and came to know both Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. In fact, Graham played a significant role in convincing JFK to appoint Johnson to the vice presidency instead of Missouri Senator Stuart Symington. Graham also had a hand in the appointments of no less than three more friends to the Kennedy administration, including then-Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon.

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